Kids shouldn't be prescribed bottles full of addictive opioids, Gov. Wolf said Tuesday, adding to his legislative to-do list ahead of a major speech Wednesday on the overdose epidemic.
Saying he doesn't want more cases in which a young person "throws their knee out in field hockey and becomes addicted to opioids," the governor swung behind legislation, introduced last week, that would bar prescribers from giving a minor more than a week's worth of the painkillers.
"We lost 3,500, almost, Pennsylvanians last year [to drug overdoses], and it looks like more than that will die this year," Wolf, who has made the fight against opioids a central focus of his administration, said in an interview. "This is a plague, and we've got to stop it."
Also Tuesday, newly released data showed that the incidence of newborns with neonatal abstinence syndrome - opioid dependence driven by exposure in the womb - has increased nearly tenfold in 15 years. Last year, 2,691 newborns in the state had substance-related conditions, of which 82 percent had neonatal abstinence syndrome.
"So these poor [newborns] are going to be incredibly expensive for us to care for, and it's a completely preventable problem," said David B. Nash, dean of the Jefferson College of Population Health at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. "There's no telling today what the downstream implications and the social costs are."
Wolf will address a joint session of the General Assembly, in hopes of signing, by year's end, around a half-dozen measures aimed at curbing the opioid problem.
Some legislators have urged modest expectations, with just a few session days remaining in a year heavy with reelection responsibilities. Others, though, called for an exercise of willpower.
"I think if we have the will to do it, even though we only have another two weeks, I think we can absolutely get most of that, if not all of that, done," Rep. Gene DiGirolamo (R., Bucks). "I think it's absolutely possible to get that done, and I think we should try."
A bill poised for a possible Senate vote Wednesday would prohibit medical providers from prescribing more than a seven-day supply of any opioid to a minor, with a few exceptions. The bill, by Sen. Gene Yaw (R., Lycoming), would require that if more than a week's worth of opioids was needed, the prescriber would first assess whether the young person had a mental health or substance abuse disorder and discuss the risks with a parent or guardian. Prescribers who flaunted the rules would face discipline against their licenses.
Wolf said that for minors, seven days of opioids would be "an appropriate cap."
Concern about the use of opioids for young people has been heightened since last year, when the Food and Drug Administration approved the long-term use of the potent opioid OxyContin for children as young as 11. The director of the state chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics could not be reached Tuesday.
Wolf had previously outlined four priorities. He would like medical schools, as a condition of receiving state funding, to teach good painkiller prescribing practices. He wants to require that prescribers take refresher courses in the pros and cons of opioids every two years.
He'd like to compel doctors to check the new patient drug history database every time they prescribe a controlled substance. And he swung behind proposals to cap opioid prescribing by emergency doctors at one week's worth of pills, with a few exceptions.